A brief history of pancho Barnes
and the Happy Bottom Riding Club
“When you have a choice, choose happy.” -Pancho Barnes
Born as Florence Leontine Lowe, “Pancho” Barnes was a force of nature, a woman who lived a big, messy, colorful, unconventional life. She ran through three fortunes, four husbands, and countless lovers. She outflew Amelia Earhart, outsmarted Howard Hughes, outdrank the Mexican Army, and out- maneuvered the U.S. government. Hers is a story of a high-spirited, headstrong woman who was proud of her successes, unabashed by her failures, and the architect of her own legend.
Pancho was a California heiress who inherited a love of flying from her grandfather, a pioneer balloonist in the Civil War. Faced with a future of domesticity and upper-crust pretensions, she ran away from her responsibilities as wife and mother to create her own life. She cruised South America. She trekked through Mexico astride a burro. She hitchhiked halfway across the United States. Then, in the late 1920s, she took to the skies, one of a handful of female pilots.
She was a barnstormer, a racer, a cross-country flier, and a Hollywood stunt pilot. She was, for a time, "the fastest woman on earth," flying the fastest civilian airplane in the world, a woman who didn't play by women's rules, a woman of large appetites--emotional, financial, and sexual--who called herself "the greatest conversation piece that ever existed.” She was an intimate of movie stars, a script doctor for the great director Erich von Stroheim, and, later in life, a drinking buddy of the supersonic jet jockey Chuck Yeager. She ran a wild and wildly successful desert watering hole known as the Happy Bottom Riding Club, the raucous bar and grill depicted in The Right Stuff.
A more unlikely minister's wife could hardly be imagined. Yet Florence Lowe Barnes (1901-74) was in fact married to an Episcopalian rector when she began training horses and flying stunt planes for Hollywood studios. As it turned out, however, the hard-drinking, hard-living, primarily male camaraderie she found there suited her far better than the well-mannered lifestyle of her affluent parents and undersexed husband. She acquired her nickname during a roistering 1927 trip to Mexico, and "Pancho" Barnes became legendary as a pioneering female pilot and a world-class party thrower with lovers to spare. (She was no beauty, but many men found Pancho's gusto and humor irresistible.) In the mid-'30s, past her prime as a pilot and looking for a business to support her free-spending ways, she set up as a Mojave Desert rancher near a tiny encampment of the Army Air Corps. Military and test pilots like Chuck Yeager flocked to Pancho's place--whether it was called Rancho Oro Verde, Pancho's Fly-Inn, or the Happy Bottom Riding Club--to savor her openhanded hospitality with food and booze, and to enjoy earthy stories about her past.
She lived like she flew--fast and dangerous.